In December 1987, federal police in Miami made their biggest drug bust of the year. Dubbed “Operation Cobra,” agents arrested six men who ran a $75-million marijuana and cocaine business under the cover of the exotic animal trade. The ring’s kingpin, who had helped hack a federal informant to death in 1980, was sentenced to a hundred years in prison. He was released in 2000 after serving twelve years and doing some informing to the feds himself.
Also released in 2000, after serving twelve years of a twenty-five-year sentence, was a second-tier associate named Orlando Cicilia. At the time of his arrest, Cicilia’s brother-in-law was a high-school student named Marco Rubio.
Twenty-four years later, Rubio is a prominent Florida senator and the Republican party’s fastest-rising star, a Tea-Party darling and the handsome son of hardscrabble Cuban exiles—er, immigrants—who is on a very short list to be the GOP’s candidate for vice president this year.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the senator’s fortunes would eventually collide with those of Univision, the nation’s leading Spanish-language network and Miami’s other fast-rising star.
While Rubio was once a paid commentator for Univision’s local affiliate in Miami, and in May 2011 granted one of the affiliate’s anchors access for a day-in-the-life interview, his relationship with the network itself is less established. He has declined multiple invitations to appear on the network’s flagship programs Al Punto and Aqui y Ahora, and in May refused the network’s request to have Jorge Ramos—Univision’s star reporter—replace the affiliate’s anchor in the day-in-the-life piece. The network’s news executives wanted the piece to air across the network, and ultimately forbid the local anchor to do the interview, saying they would not allow a politician to dictate editorial decisions.
Then, in July, Univision exposed Cicilia’s drug bust in a report broadcast in English and Spanish. The investigation was led by Gerardo Reyes, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist who had joined Univision in March, as director of its new investigative team, after twenty-two years at The Miami Herald.
Reyes came across the information of the past conviction while checking the background of Cicilia’s son, Orlando Cicilia Jr, who, according to reporting by the Herald in 2010, was one of several of Rubio’s relatives to have received payment from his political committee that was incorrectly reported to the IRS.
Reyes also learned that Cicilia now co-owns Rubio’s mother’s home, which is where he lives with his wife, Barbara. Reyes says he wanted to explore how Cicilia’s arrest had shaped Rubio’s life and politics, particularly since his family’s story has been central to his public narrative.
Shortly after Reyes first attempted to contact Cicilia, Rubio’s camp began its efforts to kill the story, saying it was an unfair intrusion into the lives of private citizens. Among their efforts was a letter addressed to Univision’s CEO of two weeks, Randy Falco. Falco forwarded the letter to Univision’s news division.
A phone call between Univision journalists and Rubio’s staff was set up to discuss the senator’s concerns. On the call were two Rubio staffers, two Univision lawyers, and four members of the network’s editorial staff—Reyes; Isaac Lee, the president of news; Maria Martinez-Henao, the managing editor of network news; and Daniel Coronell, the vice president of news. According to Lee, Rubio’s staff demanded that the call be off the record.
While Rubio’s staffers would not comment for this article, the four Univision journalists said the forty-five-minute call involved Rubio’s staff trying to kill the story, and Univision’s team trying to convince Rubio to participate in it. Lee, who did most of the talking, invited the senator to respond to questions about Cicilia on whatever Univision platform he wished, including Al Punto or Aqui y Ahora.
Lee says his message was clear: “What we wanted is for him to answer these questions. Format doesn’t matter, substance does.” No deal was made.
Rubio’s staff and Univision exchanged follow-up letters in the days following the phone call that appear to reflect the discussion and positions that the Univision journalists separately described. Univision provided these documents to CJR, though the Rubio camp’s letter to Univision is also available online.
Lee said his team debated the investigation’s news value, and ultimately decided that even though the story was old and not directly related to Rubio, it involved information about a prominent politician that should be put on the record. “How important this is and if it matters or not, that’s for people to decide,” Lee said in an interview.
The story aired on July 11, and, in lieu of a comment from Rubio or his people, quoted generously from a letter sent by the senator’s staff that called Univision’s pursuit of the story “outrageous.” “This is not news,” the letter read. “This is tabloid journalism.”